A Woman's World

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Chaucer & His World
The Aristocratic World
The Churl's World
The Clerk's World
The Townsperson's World
A Woman's World
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Theory & Genre
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To listen to the characters and read the medieval text (with modern translation) - requires Flash Player 6 , and either a set of headphones or speakers.


Introduction - Woman's World

This is the first of two pages. This page contains descriptions of each character, and a plot summary of the tales associated with each one (if they exist). If you click on the notepad symbol, you will hear Chaucer's description, as given in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales (in a modern translation) a transcript of the reading is also provided as well as the original medieval text for comparison.

The second page contains background information about the churl's world as well as a collection of associated images.


The Prioress - The Second Nun - The Wife of Bath

*As women formed a social level of their own in medieval times, and because this was determined by sex rather than by profession, all Chaucer's female pilgrims are included together, regardless of occupation or actual social status.

The Prioress

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The Prioress's name is Madame Eglentyne. She has very good manners and is courteous in her speech. Her singing in church is very seemly, as are her table manners - she rides in a very ladylike way, and carries herself (says Geoffrey) very well. She is very tender-hearted, and will weep if she sees a dog mistreated, or a mouse in a trap. She feeds white bread and milk to her small dogs. Her pleated wimple is drawn back to reveal her broad (fashionable) forehead, her well-formed nose, her grey eyes and her soft, small, red mouth. Her cloak is made very well. She carries a rosary made of coral beads, with a gold brooch hanging on it - it says 'Amor vincit omnia' (Love conquers all).

The Prioress's Tale

The Prioress’s Tale has been one of the most controversial of the Canterbury Tales, because of its apparently anti-semitic content. Arguments have been put ‘for’ and ‘against’, but in the end, as with all of Chaucer’s work, there will almost certainly be no definitive answer, only opinion. In a Christian community in an Eastern city, a young boy attends a Christian school. In order to get there, he has to pass through a Jewish ghetto. The boy hears the anthem Alma Redemptoris Mater (bountiful/kind Mother of the Redeemer), dedicated to the Virgin Mary. He learns this, and sings it on his way to and from school. Hearing him sing, the Jews are so incensed that they pay a contract killer to kill the boy, and throw his body into a cesspit. The Virgin leads the boy’s mother to his body by enabling it to continue singing. When the body is taken to the nearby abbey, the abbot is instructed to remove a grain from underneath the tongue. When he does this, the boy is taken by the Virgin Mary into heaven.

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The carving above the abbot's lodging at Rievaulx represents the Annunciation: revealed by the symbol in the centre, the pot of lilies common in Annunciation iconography

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The Second Nun

The Second Nun is one of those who accompany the Prioress. Apart from the fact that she is the Prioress's deputy, 'Geoffrey' gives no description of her.

The Second Nun's Tale

The Second Nun tells the story of Saint Cecilia. After explaining the meanings of Cecilia’s name, she tells how the saint was the daughter of a noble Roman, betrothed to a young man named Valerian. Cecilia, wishing to remain a virgin, tells her fiancé that an angel watches over her, which he will be able to see. He must visit the ancient pope Urban in the catacombs first. Urban gives Valerian a book about the Christian faith, by means of which he is converted. Returning home, he sees Cecilia with the angel. The couple are then given a crown of roses and lilies each. Valerian sends his brother Tiburce to Urban, and he too is converted. During a persecution, the two men are executed for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods. Cecilia herself, after a spirited defence, is condemned to death. She is taken to the ‘bath’ in her house by the executioner to be scorched to death, but she remains cold. Ordered to cut off her head, he cannot fully remove it in the permitted three strokes. She survives for another three days, whilst she continues to preach the faith and prepare for her death. Her house is made into a church, consecrated to the new saint by Urban.

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More devotion to the Virgin at Rievaulx; the tile says 'Ave Maria', Hail Mary

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The Wife of Bath

 Click here to read the transcript Listen and Read

She is a bit deaf, which is a pity - she is so good at cloth-making that she outshines the makers of Ypres and Ghent. No other woman in the parish dares to go before her in church. If any do, she gets really annoyed. The linen kerchiefs on her head are so fine that Geoffrey estimates that those she wears on a Sunday must weigh at least ten pounds. Her hose are of scarlet red, tightly laced, and her shoes are supple and new. Her face is bold pretty, and she has a ruddy complexion - and a gap between her front teeth. She has been a worthy woman all her life. She has married five husbands at the church door, but Geoffrey says he won't talk about that now. She has been to Jerusalem three times, and to Rome, Santiago and Cologne; she has travelled in many foreign lands. She sits comfortably on a pacing-horse, wearing a large wimple, with a hat like a round shield on her head. An apron-like garment sits around her hips, and she has spurs on her feet. She knows all about remedies for love-sickness, and the tricks of the trade of love - she is a really good companion.

The Wife of Bath's Tale

Alison, Goodwife from Bath, begins her tale with a long prologue (or ‘preamble’ as the Friar terms it), in which she gives selected details about her own life, in particular her love/sex life. She has had five husbands, as well as other lovers, and is now looking for the sixth. She was married at the age of twelve to a rich old man, and subsequently married two more rich old men, one after the other. Her last two husbands are the subject of much of her prologue. The fourth husband was a lecher, who kept mistresses himself but complained about her own conduct, especially her gossipping, her ‘gadding about’, and her pride in her own dress. The Wife tells how she tricked him, and managed to carry on an affair of her own, with the clerk Jankin, who became her fifth husband after the death of the fourth. Having married Jankin for love, despite their difference in age (he was a young man, and she a middle-aged woman), the Wife handed over to him all her money and possessions. She recalls how he then attempted to dominate her, reading to her every night from a ‘book of wikked wyves’, examples of evil women from history. He also admonished her with quotes concerning the sinfulness of women from learned (male) authorities, and the Wife also says that he beat her, and yet he could still make her love him.

Eventually, the Wife recalls how she leapt up and tore a leaf out of Jankin’s book, and he struck her. She then fell and lay as if dead, until he, in desperation, promised to let her have sovereignty in their marriage – and to burn the book.

The Wife of Bath tells the story of a knight at the court of King Arthur. One day, he rapes a young virgin, and the king hands him over to Guinevere for judgement. He will lose his head if he cannot find out, within a year and a day, what it is that women most desire. The knight searches until his time is almost done, but does not receive a definitive answer. On his way back to his death, he meets an old hag in the forest. She offers to give him the information, if he will grant her the first demand she makes of him. He agrees, and the answer (that women most desire to have sovereignty over their husbands and lovers) is adjudged correct. His life is saved. However, the old hag then demands that he marry her. He cannot refuse, and his entreaties do not move the hag to retract her demand. On their wedding night, the hag gives the miserable knight a lecture on the nature of nobility – it comes from within, not from one’s wealth or status - and demands whether he will have her beautiful and unfaithful, or ugly and faithful. He decides to leave the answer to her. As soon as she has gained sovereignty over him (what women most desire) she agrees to be both faithful and beautiful, and they live happily ever after.

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On to the next page...

The Aristocratic World
The Churl's World
The Clerk's World
The Townspeople's world
A Woman's World
Chaucer and his world